U.S. sanctions three Nicaraguan officials for rights abuse, corruption

(Reuters) - The United States on Thursday sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials, including the country’s police chief and the head of its oil company, for human rights abuses and corruption, the U.S. Treasury Department said.

The three officials sanctioned are Francisco Javier Diaz Madriz, Nicaragua’s police commissioner; Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, the secretary of the Managua mayor’s office; and Jose Francisco Lopez Centeno, president of the state-owned oil company Petronic and vice-president of Albanisa, a private company that imports and sells Venezuelan petroleum products.

The sanctions were imposed on the officials because of concerns over the “ongoing crisis in Nicaragua,” including “violence perpetrated by security forces and others that have resulted in the death of at least 220 demonstrators, and nearly 1,500 injured,” the statement said.

Under the sanctions, assets belonging to the officials in the United States are blocked and U.S. citizens are prohibited from engaging in transactions with them or entities they own or control, the Treasury said in a statement.

“The violence perpetrated by the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega against the Nicaraguan people and the efforts of those close to the Ortega regime to illicitly enrich themselves is deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable,” Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.

In 2007, Ortega’s government started receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in oil cooperation from Venezuela. Most of those funds are run by Albanisa to finance social projects and build a business conglomerate to pay back the loans.

Protests began in April against Ortega’s perceived corrupt and authoritarian regime. Police and masked militias fired at the protesters, leaving more than 200 people dead.

The Treasury accused Madriz of ordering the Nicaraguan police to set fire to a house in the capital, Managua, killing six people, including two children. It said police also asked gang leaders in Nicaragua to attack anti-government protesters, fired on and killed peaceful protesters.

Briones ordered attacks against elderly and young people protesting peacefully, ordered violent attacks against anti-government marchers and beat protesters and stole money from Managua municipal projects, according to the Treasury.

Centeno exploited government taxes and fines, siphoned funds from infrastructure projects and used his position to his benefit, the statement said.

The State Department said it would hold those responsible for the violence and intimidation campaign accountable.

“These actions must end,” the department said in a statement.

Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy